Benjamin Zawacki Opens Students’ Eyes to Human Rights Violations in Southeast Asia

With ravenous fires consuming entire villages, daily executions on display for the public eye and countless rapes and murders, peace is a luxury that is difficult to come by in Rakhine State, Myanmar.

Benjamin Zawacki, Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program and Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, spoke to students last Friday in Kemper Auditorium about the ongoing, egregious human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims in Southeast Asia.

The presentation aimed to transport viewers 8,000 miles from their seats in Kemper to conflict-ridden cities, ultra-nationalistic mobs and inhospitable ghettos throughout the Rakhine State, a heavily-Buddhist region on the southwestern coast of Myanmar.

Zawacki said that although no nation is without its human rights challenges, those against the Rohingya are rising to the alarming level of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

“Since mid-2012, Myanmar’s Rohingya have suffered a series of direct attacks by Rakhine civilians as well as Myanmar security forces, such that now over 140,000 are internally displaced in the country and many more have fled as refugees,” Zawacki wrote in an email to The Phillipian, describing the discrimination that the Rohingya are facing from the government today.

Probing the rise of recent outbreaks of violence in the region, Zawacki’s presentation focused on the three central reasons why the Rohingya are victims of widespread violence. He listed nationality and discrimination, statelessness and discrimination as the primary causes.

“[The Rohingya’s] homes, businesses and places of worship – as Muslims they are a religious minority as well – have been destroyed, and they have suffered a plethora of human rights violations,” Zawacki said.

“This follows decades of systemic discrimination and persecution, which, in conjunction with the recent attacks, constitute ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” he said.

Zawacki, whose résumé includes stints at Amnesty International, The Elders and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said that his passion for human rights sparked from his longstanding interest in social justice and humanitarian law after graduating from law school.

The clash between ethnic Rakhines and the Rohingya dates back to World War II when a British-led arms deal intended to equip the Rohingya with means to defend then-Burma from an impending Japanese attack. Instead of acting as the British buffer, the Rohingya used the English weapons to pillage the ethnic Rakhines and destroy Buddhist monuments, temples and monasteries.

The 1982 Citizenship Law, serving as the turning point in Myanmar’s contentious Muslim-Buddhist relations, denied the Rohingya any recognition from the federal government as to the status of their citizenship. To this day, officials reject the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar, casting them off as stateless people, despite the fact their ancestors had inhabited the land for hundreds of years.

Rakhine State, whose population is dominantly comprised of ethnic Rakhines, is now the home to an impromptu apartheid system that seeks vengeance for the Rohingya’s transgressions from over half a century ago. Many Rakhines have justified their systemic discrimination towards the Rohingya on grounds of past prejudices and mutual plights, according to Zawacki.

The societal climate of the Rakhine State, Zawacki noted, has rapidly evolved over the course of the Rohingya Crisis.

As a testament to the transformation, Zawacki recalled one of his trips to Myanmar, on behalf of former President Jimmy Carter, in which a group of Buddhist monks orchestrated a protest on the streets outside of a Rohingya ghetto to demand for forcible deportment.
“There is no single governing narrative on [Myanmar]; it is neither the brand new country nor the same old regime it is often portrayed as,” Zawacki said.

“I hope that students came away with not only an appreciation of the truly dire situation of the Rohingya, but also with an understanding of the Responsibility to Protect and its applicability to that situation,” Zawacki continued.

Zawacki’s visit was sponsored by the Student Anti-Genocide Coalition (STAND).